Paul Westerberg

Come Feel Me Tremble

Come Feel Me Tremble DVD

(Redline Entertainment)


Dead Man Shake

(Fat Possum)

Don’t look back, Paul Westerberg thought to himself the first time he crossed paths with Bob Dylan. It was early 1990, and the Replacements were wrapping up a long, boozy session at Hollywood’s Ocean Way studios. Having learned that Dylan was ensconced in another part of the building, they were cutting a shambolic version of “Like a Rolling Stone” called “Like a Rolling Pin.”

As a hoarse Westerberg, his back to the control room window, brought the whole mess to a crashing halt, he still hadn’t noticed the visitor who’d dropped in to check out the strangely familiar racket: Dylan himself, in proto-Unabomber hood and sunglasses, head cocked quizzically. But the other Mats had, and their jaws dropped. Westerberg finally turned around.

For a moment they stood face-to-face, the two storied Minnesota songwriters, each hailed in his heyday as rock’s preeminent poet, separated by only a pane of glass. The image is metaphorically rich–mirror image or fun-house distortion, take your pick–but what sticks with me about the story is the distance between the two. There was Westerberg, caught in the act delivering a heartfelt but characteristically fucked-up homage at full volume; and there was Dylan, silent and reserved, his reaction unreadable behind the dark shades.

Westerberg was not and is not Bob Dylan, and he surely knew it at that moment. Dylan, like the beat poets he admired, understood the importance of making his art look effortless, though he was endlessly revising and reworking it behind the scenes. His legendary paranoia regarding bootleg recordings may have stemmed less from financial considerations than from his fierce desire to control the way he was packaged and presented to the world. Westerberg’s persona, as evidenced by 1,001 sloppy and/or incendiary Mats shows, was far less managed.

Where Dylan could bring a crowd to a hush with a naked epic like “To Ramona,” Westerberg’s most profound lines were usually buried behind a wall of squalling guitar and shredded larynx, couched in the context of some elaborate joke, or mumbled unintelligibly, like a secret he didn’t want anyone to divine. Yet it was ultimately his earnestness that accounted for the Replacements’ unique charm. Playing a cover of Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” on a radio broadcast in 2002, Westerberg closed the song by announcing, “This was the only one he ever meant.” That Westerberg responds best not to any of Dylan’s postapocalyptic warnings, cryptomessianic ramblings, or poison-pen diatribes, but rather to something as simple and honest and ultimately silly as “All I Really Want to Do” makes perfect sense–as if in Dylan’s Jimmy Rodgers yodel the younger man recognized the same clownish, self-protective urge that lay behind his punk caterwauling.

Despite the gap between them, there’s a measure of symmetry in the lives and careers of Dylan and Westerberg, a common struggle to find a middle path between burning out and fading away. In the preface to his new book, Orson Welles: The Stories of His Life, Peter Conrad observes that the director made his masterpiece, Citizen Kane, in his mid-20s, and then spent the rest of his life afraid that his best work was behind him. Likewise, both Dylan and Westerberg recorded their classics young and have spent the balance of their careers trying to live up to them.

Each was responsible for broadening the musical vocabulary of his time: Dylan put poetry and protest into rock, while Westerberg made it acceptable for punks to write uninhibitedly about romance and emotion. Early on each made calculated efforts to meet audience expectations: Dylan produced protest anthems he’s since admitted were largely commercial ploys–back in ’65 he told a shocked Joan Baez that he wrote “Masters of War” because he thought it would sell. In 1982 the Replacements, who were playing with the likes of Black Flag and the Dead Kennedys, put out the Stink EP, which looked and sounded like a hardcore record. But Dylan and Westerberg both quickly recognized the pigeonholes that’d been carved out for them, and when they took evasive measures, the backlash was personal. Enraged folkies deemed Dylan a Judas, and hardcore punks dismissed Westerberg as a sissy.

Both Westerberg and Dylan closed their respective decades of dominance with albums that perplexed critics and fans alike. The Replacements’ second-to-last LP, 1989’s Don’t Tell a Soul, was derided as overly polished, self-satisfied, and fake-sounding; the same criticisms had been leveled at Dylan 20 years earlier for his affected country croon, lightweight lyrics, and pie-eyed romanticism on Nashville Skyline. But unlike Dylan, Westerberg then had to make the tricky transition from front man to solo artist. His post-Mats career started off promisingly enough with a contribution to the Singles sound track and his politely received debut, 14 Songs, but follow-ups like 1996’s Eventually and 1999’s Suicaine Gratifaction, on which the gentle mood pieces outnumbered the scuffling rockers, met with declining interest.

Just as he was distancing himself from his signature sound, a whole new wave of artists, from the Goo Goo Dolls to Green Day, were getting rich aping it. “Imitators steal me blind,” sang Dylan in “Idiot Wind,” but Westerberg must’ve felt particularly chagrined by the success of his pretenders. “People have taken advantage of him,” observed ardent Westerberg fan Jakob Dylan in 2000. “I’m sure it must be very painful to him to watch these groups that are far inferior to him being very successful doing a very watered-down B version of what he started.”

Throughout the 90s it seemed that Westerberg was–like Dylan in the early 70s–in constant competition with his younger, more inchoate self. Some cruelly suggested that he return to the bottle to replenish his muse. (His reading of Dylan’s scathing kiss-off “Positively 4th Street” for a recent compilation feels like the perfect rejoinder to those who abandoned him during this period.)

In 1999, after Suicaine Gratifaction, Westerberg engineered his own Dylanesque disappearance, shedding all label and managerial ties and retreating to the solitude of his Minneapolis home for the next three and a half years to raise his young family. He never gave an excuse, a la Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash, but rumors circulated. One was that he’d nearly died after suffering a collapsed lung. As Westerberg comically recounts in the recently released DVD documentary Come Feel Me Tremble, even his next-door neighbor bought that one, and came running over to ask about his condition.

None of the stories was true. Westerberg spent the time sorting through the accumulated baggage of his life and career–though he did later admit that he’d gone home expecting to suffer a massive nervous breakdown. In his 40s, with a bad back, a chronic sinus infection, and a mouthful of rotten teeth, he’d given most of his life to rock ‘n’ roll and been repaid with indifference. Who would’ve blamed him if he’d hung it up for good?

Dylan likes to talk about the epiphany he had onstage in Locarno, Switzerland, in 1987–how a phrase that came to him from the blue, I’m determined to stand, whether God will deliver me or not, gave him the will to go on. But Westerberg’s moment of truth was, fittingly, far more mundane: he bought a new guitar, a big Gibson ES-335 hollowbody, and found that the chords still lined up under his fingers.

He went down into the basement and back to the music of his youth: rock, punk, and blues. He jammed and played covers far into the night, and soon his own songs came pouring out, stripped-down or fuzzed up as it pleased him. Brittle acoustic numbers like “Boring Enormous” and “Dirt to Mud” dealt openly with his recent struggles, professional and personal; garrulous rockers like “Kickin’ the Stall” and “Anything but That” proved he was still in possession of both his chops and his attitude problem.

Westerberg also began to fundamentally reconsider his approach to recording, which had played a large part in the overcooked sound of his previous solo albums. In a 2002 interview, famed Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who’s worked with both Dylan and Westerberg, noted a similarity in their mind-sets. “I think Westerberg was the most sensitive writer I’ve worked with,” said Dickinson. “Like Dylan, he doesn’t trust the recording process. Nobody wants to give up their songs, because once it’s in the producer’s hands, it’s not theirs anymore.”

Dylan’s solution on 2001’s Love and Theft was to produce himself, letting his trusted road band tear through the songs once or twice and leaving minor imperfections alone. The record was widely received as his freshest and most compelling work in ages. Around the same time, Westerberg also decided to take matters into his own hands, not just producing but also playing all the instruments. He arranged the tracks to bleed into one another, creating the illusion that the record had been cut live. The music has a genuine off-the-cuff feel, with out-of-tune guitars, notes not quite reached, even reels running out midchorus.

In 2002, Westerberg finally emerged with his basement tapes, Stereo and Mono (the latter attributed to Grandpaboy, a pseudonym that could be a nod to Dylan’s Blind Boy Grunt). Long finished with the majors, he was now the grand old man on a young man’s punk label, Vagrant. He won back a chunk of his following with those two discs, and with good reason: he’d tapped back into his youthful enthusiasm and found an unexpected reserve, just as Dylan had with Love and Theft. Recently Westerberg’s followed up that comeback with three more releases: Come Feel Me Tremble, the DVD documentary of the same name, and another Grandpaboy disc, Dead Man Shake.

Greil Marcus, writing in Rolling Stone, responded to Dylan’s 1970 curio Self Portrait with the now infamous line “What is this shit?” Much of the negative criticism of the Come Feel Me Tremble CD asks the same question. Like Self Portrait, it’s an indulgent scramble of odd ideas, leftovers, curious covers, and the occasional brilliant gem. Dylan hurriedly released the more substantive New Morning just a few months after Self Portrait; Westerberg has already completed the more substantive Folker for release early next year.

Dead Man Shake is ostensibly a blues album, though it’s peppered with echoey rockabilly, dour country, and Broadway balladeering. The opening cut, “MPLS,” goes like this: “On the Mississippi river I was born in ’59 / Down in Dinkytown, old Bob Dylan was freezing his behind.” Like all good bluesmen, Westerberg takes some license with the facts, but the notion is poetically satisfying: as Robert Zimmerman, freshman at the University of Minnesota, prepares for his rebirth as Bob Dylan, life gives baby Paul Westerberg the first of many smacks on the ass.

There’s yet more Dylan homage on the Come Feel Me Tremble DVD (which Westerberg, under another pseudonym, codirected with Rick Fuller): the 100-minute movie echoes both Don’t Look Back and Eat the Document. Ostensibly a concert film covering his 2002 solo tour, it follows Westerberg through strange preshow preparations and emotional encounters with his admirers. Most of the performance material is bootleg footage shot by fans, making the project kin to the Replacements’ official bootleg album The Shit Hits the Fans. Like that set, Come Feel Me Tremble is by turns immensely enjoyable and profoundly frustrating: the sound is bad, the endings are abrupt, and the performances straddle the line (as Westerberg once observed of the Mats) between comedy and tragedy. In short, it’s a pretty good distillation of his essence.

The most compelling moment comes toward the end of the film, where Westerberg’s alone in his studio. Pawing through sheaves of paper lined with lyrics, he fights depression, self-doubt, and what he describes as “severe ADD” to make new music. It’s hard to tell which of his manic antics are genuine and which are for show–but it sure feels like a devastingly real struggle with the creative process. It made me wonder what a similarly intimate account of Dylan’s songwriting process might look like on-screen.

In a poem called “What They Want,” Charles Bukowski meditates on the public’s fascination with the self-destruction that seems to hound our most necessary artists. “Beethoven gone deaf; Pound dragged through the streets in a cage…Hemingway’s brains dropping into the orange juice…that’s what they want,” he wrote. “A God damned show, a lit billboard in the middle of hell.” Certainly Westerberg, like Dylan, has had plenty of chances to burn out or fade away. Instead, though, he’s managed to harness even the ugliness of the star machine and make it work to his benefit. As Dylan might have advised Westerberg that day in Hollywood, every self-portrait brings a new morning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Darin Back.